Supernova: The Backchannel

Ross Mayfield, Mary Hodder, Suw Charman

As I was on this panel, it was pretty difficult to take notes. I think because it was a bit of an ad hoc, slightly chaotic panel – reflecting nicely the backchannel, I think – no one seemed to start taking notes until I put SubEthaEdit, which we were using for the collaborative note taking, up on the screen.

Funny that.

We talked a bit about what the backchannel is, and I described how IRC can be sniping, or it can be a force for good. Mary put together a film which sadly didn’t render properly so had no sound. Then we answered questions and I demo’d SubEtha Edit.

Here are the notes from SEE, thanks to Tom, Nat and Kevin for these:

Find SubEthaEdit here:

SubEthaEdit was designed for pair programming.

The last panel on the Backchannel…

Comment from the audience – we talk about the immersive gaming and the like, but why is the conference a one-way / one-speaker channel? one of the best things about the whole enterprise has been that while people are talking you can go and explore the blogs and read around it. It’s one of the best and most immersive explorations of the subjects that I’ve been involved with…

“This has been the best session so far”, says rohit.

Ross Mayfield: I founded this company based on wikis. Doc Searls said ‘look at the energy in the room’ “The thing for Supernova for me is always the people who are here”.

Suw: It [SubEthaEdit] runs over the local network Rendezvous (Bonjour) tells you who else is on the local network with you.

It allows a speed of note-taking that even I can’t get. It allows a collaborative document that is tidier than any one person could create. It’s a nice way of supporting a kind of community in the room. You feel like you’re in a little team, that’s supporting each other.

It’s extraordinarily productive as well. I was sitting around with Tantek and Kevin and Greg yesterday talking about the microformats stuff. It would take you a lot longer to do that stuff if you were passing around documents and the like…

One last comment or question? {no}

Suw: Yay! Where’s my vodka???

* *** ***** *** *

Ok, so my thoughts on all this.

I didn’t really know what I was going to talk about on this panel – last panel, on something which usually defies generalisation, doesn’t really encourage much in the way of preparation.

I’ve been in really constructive, useful backchannels before, where people are adding to the conversations and panels that are happening up on stage. People can dig up links, explain jargon or ideas, and add to what’s been said with further information. Equally, people can push back on speakers who have got it wrong – there was one speaker at Supernova (I wasn’t paying attention at the time) who said something about no one ever setting up a home-made lemonade stand in San Francisco, and within seconds Tantek had posted a picture of a lemonade stand in San Francisco that he had taken a couple of weeks earlier.

It’s true that sometimes the backchannel just descends into sniping, snarkiness and sexual innuendo, but usually this happens when people get bored with what they are seeing on stage. When speakers are engaging, the backchannel quietens right down because people are absorbed by what they are hearing.

So here’s a lesson for speakers – be interesting! If you lose your audience to the backchannel, don’t blame IRC, blame your crappy presentation.

I hate not being part of a backchannel. I loathe conferences without reliable wifi because the back channel gives me a better sense of who’s around and makes me feel a bit less like I am at a lecture and more like I am hanging out in a room with cool people and that someone just happens to (hopefully) be telling me cool stuff from the stage.

At Supernova, it did mainly seem to be the small coterie of mac-wielding Brit and non-American geeks who did the majority of the chit chat, although the odd USian did stick their nose in from time to time. We also had a few people kicking about who weren’t even at the conference, or even in the same country. That’s actually been a favourite trick of mine, to hang out on the backchannel of conferences I can’t get to, even if just to make connections with the people who are there so I don’t feel like I’m missing out too much.

Throughout the conference, I acted as official IRC mole, keeping an eye out for fun things to post up on the screens during the breaks. (I’ll post all those quotes in another post.) That was kind of fun, and added a bit of an interesting dynamic to the channel, as it was well known and announced that I would be doing this. Nothing like the threat of publication to make people paranoid.

One of the drawbacks of this was that I ended up with way too many data streams. At one point I was watching four IRC channels and about ten private messages, listening to the panel, taking notes in Ecto/SubEthaEdit, wrangling a half-dozen AIM/Bonjour conversations, two Skype IM conversations as well as having to check email and put together PowerPoint slides.

That, my friends, is too much data. I can keep that up for about an hour before my brain melts, which it duly did.

But the backchannel, for me, makes the conference a much richer experience. It’s the glue that holds the sessions all together:

TomCoates: This is like the backchannel OF the backchannel

KevinMarks: it brings hallway conversations back into the room

TomCoates: this is the social room for the work

TomCoates: I think it’s mischaracterising it

KragenSitaker: we’ll probably need a better-than-IRC medium for 500 brains. subethaediti s a good example.

TomCoates: This is where we play foosball

TomCoates: I don’t know that the backchannel for this particular conference deserves to be dragged out into the light

JeffClavier: We love you Ross, even after that

TomCoates: it’s more of a Gollum-style backchannel

jjgnet: tom++

TomCoates: the SSE docs is the bit that we should be proud of as ever

KevinMarks: and also flirting with 3 people at once

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